By Alex Richards
With the death of Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar in July 1639 the position of the anti-Imperial armies was fundamentally transformed. On the one hand, the loss of such a charismatic and effective general- albeit one prone to attempting risky strategies- represented a blow to those opposing the Emperor and left the armies under Bernhard’s command temporarily leaderless and potentially up for grabs for the highest bidder. On the other hand, from the perspective of the French court he had achieved the goal of effectively moving the fighting from Alsace into Swabia and his death removed a potential loose cannon and fiercely independent actor making their control of the German armies in Swabia- which Richelieu swiftly moved to ensure were confirmed as being in French service- that much more secure.
War returns to the South
While, thanks in large part to Guébriant’s actions, the Bernhardine army leadership accepted French overall command on October 9th 1639 in a deal that saw their conquests turned over to France in return for continued autonomy within the army and control of Breisach; the pressures of the war in Flanders, the actions of Amalie-Elisabeth in Hesse and the Guelphs in Westphalia, and the demands of the Bernhardine colonels to be paid before advancing further all combined to prevent significant action in Swabia in the short term. Guébriant moved north, leaving Hans Ludwig von Erlach in command of Breisach and the forces there, and he acted in loose co-ordination with Konrad Widerhold commanding the nigh-impregnable impregnable fortress of the Hohentwiel. Opposing them were the Bavarians in the fortresses for the former Electoral Palatinate, and the Imperial garrisons around Konstanz in the far south. For the most part, however, a desire on both sides to keep troops in reserve to defend their fortresses prevented large scale action in the area, with only the failed 1642 campaign of Claudia of Tuscany- regent of Tyrol- against the Hohentwiel, and a joint operation by Erlach and Widerhold to take Überlingen the following January representing significant activity.
However, with the end of the Hessian campaigns, the Guelphs moving towards peace overtures after the Siege of Wolfenbüttel, Guébriant found himself increasingly at risk of being cut off in the north of Germany and moved south, initially to Württemberg, before finally being driven out by the Bavarians in January 1643 and retreating to Breisach. This, combined with Richelieu’s death and the needs of the war in Flanders, drove a new French strategy of giving the Hessians free reign in Westphalia to cause what disruption to Imperial war efforts they could, while dividing the main offensives between themselves and Sweden- the latter to focus on the Habsburg crownlands while the French would target Bavaria. It was a strategy that would take 2 years to be fully implemented, and France initially had little in the way of resources to direct towards Guébriant’s 1643 campaign in Swabia, blunting prospects for the initial advance.
Nonetheless, in June 1643 Guébriant marched to the Hohentwiel with 11,000 men aiming to attack towards Bavaria. He was opposed by the Bavarian army under General Franz von Mercy who quickly moved troops into position, and even with Guébriant changing strategy to merely consolidate the French position in the Black Forest, Mercy was able to cut off his defences, relieving a French siege of Rottweil in July and forcing the French to retreat. By the autumn the Bavarians were occupying Baden Durlach and parts of Alsace, much to the consternation of Cardinal Mazarin.
The Battle of Tuttlingen
Mazarin, eager to secure further victories to shore up his position, used the capture of Sierck in Lorraine as an opportunity to reinforce Guébriant with 7,000 more men, and he once more went on the offensive, successfully taking Rottweil on November 18th 1643. However, in the course of the battle, Guébriant himself was mortally wounded, leaving command to devolve to Josias Rantzau- formerly in the Danish service but having served for some years in the French army. He was, however, not as militarily skilled as Guébriant and hated by most of the former Bernhardine officers.
More concerningly for Rantzau, Mercy had also received reinforcements from the Lower Rhine, and he had capable commanders in his army in the form of von Werth and von Hatzfeldt to supplement his own skills. Avoiding the more direct route through Bahlingen- which would have risked exposing his flank to the garrison in Rottweil- Mercy instead turned east, crossed the Danube at Sigmaringen and then turned back west through Messkirch. Combined with managing to succesfully capture the French pickets he was able to take the Rantzau and his army completely by surprise. A multi-pronged attack managed to capture the French artillery near instantaneously, along with several infantry positions and the cavalry at Möhringen. The remaining infantry, including Rantzau himself, were surrendered after the captured artillery was trained on them, and Rottweil itself surrendered a week later. Bernhard’s army was essentially eliminated from the field having only outlived its commander by a little over 4 years.
Though downplayed by the French court to an extremely successful degree, the battle had been an utter disaster for the French- only 4,500 men managed to make it back to the French garrisons on the Rhine, and the army had lost guns, experienced officers and the silver being carried for payment. More distressingly for France, the field was now wide open for the Bavarians under Mercy to advance towards the Rhine and Alsace, where Turenne was rushed into place to bolster the defences.
The battle did not, however, have to go so badly for the French. Had the Bavarian dragoons failed to capture Rantzau’s pickets, he would have received sufficient notice to prepare for battle, rather than being caught completely unawares. That, in and of itself, is unlikely to have changed the outcome of the fight overall- even without capturing the French artillery near-immediately Mercy’s superior skill at arms would likely have won out- but it may have been possible for the French to eke out enough casualties to be able to withdraw in good order. Even without that, a more fiercely contested battle- the two armies were equally matched at 15,000 men apiece after all- would probably have delayed Mercy’s ability to advance.
Had Guébriant also survived the capture of Rottweil the situation would have been even further improved for the French. It is difficult to gauge what the likely outcome would have been. Both Guébriant and Mercy could and did manage to achieve significant victories, so perhaps the best assessment that could be made is that any battle would have been close-fought, and much studied. Mercy, if he were to win, may find himself forced to lay siege to Rottweil in order to force its surrender, potentially leaving him open to a new attack early in 1644 when historically Turenne briefly advanced into Swabia before being forced to turn around by Mercy’s own advance. A narrow French victory would have secured the strategic objectives Guébriant had set himself of moving the forward positions deep into the Black Forest for the next year’s campaign.
Ironically, this greater success here may end up leading to a poorer performance in the next years than historically, for with the loss Guébriant and the advance of the Bavarian army, Mazarin decided to take drastic measures in response. Fresh from his victory at Rocroi, command was about to pass to France’s most dynamic commander- the Duc d’Enghien.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP